When I lived in Cairo I quickly learned that an element of every trip home to the United States was answering the question: “what kind of government do they have over there?”
My stock answer to this was: “a military dictatorship, but a relatively benign one as these things go.” It was not, I’d explain, Pinochet’s Chile, Argentina under the colonels or Saddam’s Iraq – an all-encompassing terror state. The government wasn’t nice, but it did not engage in brutality on that scale.
Now, I’m not so sure. Anyone who has known Egypt over the last two decades will tell you that the country has seen an authoritarian drift over the past ten or 15 years. Max Rodenbeck wrote of this trend more than a dozen years ago in the final pages of his excellent book Cairo: The City Victorious, when he considered, with obvious disappointment, a city that had become harder-edged than the one he had known for so many years.
It retrospect it may simply be that what, until now, separated Mubarak from his more notorious dictatorial brethren is that he has managed to go nearly 30 years without having to really put his foot down.
I keep telling myself that this is not the Egypt I know. Then, however, I remind myself that in some ways, actually, it is. Way back in 1994 two journalist friends and I went to Cairo’s newly built 100,000-seat soccer stadium to watch a World Cup qualifier between Egypt and Zimbabwe. Entering the stadium we noted with some interest that it was surrounded by seven, yes seven, security fences. “Well,” one of my colleagues remarked, “now we know what they plan to do with all the fundis (i.e. Islamic fundamentalists) when the uprising comes.”
As for the nationalistic paranoia the government has unleashed against foreign journalists and human rights workers, that, too, has been a fixture of Egyptian life for decades. Foreign journalists working in Egypt (and most of the rest of the Middle East) long ago accustomed ourselves to the idea that pretty much everyone we met assumed us to be spies. Journalists and spies, after all, do many of the same things: they gather information, ask questions, cultivate confidences. Human rights activists, if anything, were worse. From a government perspective do they have any purpose at all except to embarrass the country? Looked at this way it is not hard to see how the Mubarak regime has been able today to convince its thugs that journalists and human rights workers are among the most important enemies who need to be rooted out in the name of preserving Egypt’s stability.
It may even be that Mubarak and his Vice President-cum-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman believe much of the rhetoric they have been spouting about foreign elements plotting to undermine the stability of the state. Especially since their seeming belief that nasty foreigners are out to get them dovetails nicely with what they seem to want to do: make sure that prying foreign eyes are removed from Tahrir Square and its surroundings before the final confrontation. Mubarak has never been especially good at international PR, but he is smart enough to know that a crackdown televised live around the world will be very bad for him on many, many levels.
Friday feels like an historic day, one likely to determine the balance of power and, with it, the eventual course of this uprising. The question that remains to be answered concerns the army and where its ultimate loyalties lie. I have been saying for several days that the generals around Mubarak are loyal to him, but have a deeper loyalty to the institution of the military. When they believe Mubarak has become too much of a liability, they will force him out. I still believe that, but stand corrected concerning how much latitude they have been willing to give him to solve things the old fashioned way – with the street thugs the regime has used for decades (albeit on a much smaller scale). The government clearly wants whatever happens Friday to take place without pesky reporters and cameras around to record it. Even with the violence of the last 24 hours, however, that is likely to prove far more difficult than they imagine.
What none of us on the outside can know is how the army’s own internal dynamics may factor into this. The U.S. State Department was telling journalists earlier today that in standing by as the violence swelled around them Wednesday and Thursday the army had, in effect, made a choice. On one level, that is certainly true. But it may also be that the generals around Mubarak are less than completely sure the captains and majors commanding those tanks in Tahrir Square will obey an order to crush the protests.
I suspect we will have a better sense of all these questions by the time the sun goes down tomorrow.